Delay in inauguration of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez sparks anger

Opposition lawmakers claim constitution has been violated after assembly agrees to put off cancer-stricken president’s swearing-in

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 4:59am


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Venezuela is heading into uncharted political waters without ailing President Hugo Chavez amid calls for the Supreme Court to decide if his government's postponing of his inauguration is constitutional.

After days of suspense, the government confirmed on Tuesday that Chavez, recovering in Cuba from cancer surgery, was still too sick to return for his re-inauguration today and would take the oath of office at a later date before the Supreme Court.

Leaders of the leftist government insist his current term can be extended beyond the January 10 inauguration date until he is well enough to be sworn in to another six-year term.

"If anyone has doubts, then go to the Supreme Court, go ahead to the Supreme Court, explain what your doubts are," Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly Speaker, said in a stormy debate after the delay was announced.

"We don't have any doubts about what we have to do and what is [stated] in the constitution." With a show of hands, the Chavez-controlled assembly approved the open-ended absence of the president, who has dominated the country personally and politically since coming to power in 1999.

"President Chavez, this honorable assembly grants you all the time that you need to attend to your illness and return to Venezuela when the unexpected cause [of your absence] has disappeared," Cabello said.

The Supreme Court, which is controlled by pro-Chavez magistrates, faced opposition demands for it to rule on the constitutionality of the decision.

On Tuesday, it rejected as inadmissible on technical grounds a challenge brought against Cabello's role, as the crisis deepened in this Opec member that sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.

"I do not know what the judges of the Supreme Court are waiting for. Right now in Venezuela, without any doubt whatsoever, a constitutional conflict has arisen," opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Monday that Chavez's medical condition was unchanged since the latest complication from surgery was reported four days ago.

Chavez, who has not been seen in public for nearly a month, the longest stretch of his 14 years in power, is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in a "respiratory insufficiency", officials have said.

In the National Assembly, deputies on both sides of the aisle stood up to make angry speeches for and against the government's decision to delay the swearing-in and extend his term.

The government says the swearing-in is a mere formality that can be delayed, but the opposition says Chavez must at least be declared temporarily incapacitated and replaced on an interim basis by the National Assembly Speaker.

The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.